Knock Me for a Loop
By Heidi Betts
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2010 Heidi Betts
All rights reserved.
Charlotte Langan's late-model station wagon, complete with faux wooden panels running the full length of both sides, rumbled beneath her, sending pleasant little ripples into her feet, up her short legs, and along the narrow line of her vertebrae. The heat was turned up full blast in an attempt to counteract the brittle cold of Cleveland, Ohio, in mid-December.
Holiday decorations were up already — and had been since just after Thanksgiving — lining the damp streets and filling lighted storefronts. Christmas was one of her favorite times of year. The colors and raised spirits and festivities. Not to mention presents! Whether she was giving or receiving them, oh, how she loved the presents. What other time of year did a woman have such a bona fide excuse to shop until she dropped?
Flipping on her right turn signal, Charlotte maneuvered her car — which she imagined handled much like a refrigerator on wheels — into the lot of a local strip mall, then began to drive slowly up and down the rows of cars already parked there. Using the steering wheel for leverage, she hoisted herself up and forward for a better view as she peered through the windshield searching for an empty spot.
When she finally found one near a brightly lit overhead lamp, she pulled in — it only took six or eight tries — cut the engine, and set the parking brake. Because a woman could never be too careful, and the parking lot was on a slight, probably fifteen-degree incline. Then she grabbed her knitting tote from the passenger side of the seat beside her and climbed out of the station wagon.
Frigid air swamped her, and she tugged the hood of her thick, fluffy fleece coat up and over her head, tightening the strings until she was sure she looked like the Jolly Green Eskimo ... or maybe a giant lime Popsicle.
Her bright purple faux Ugg boots splotted against the slick asphalt as she goose-stepped her way across the lot and pulled open the door to The Yarn Barn. A wall of blessed heat smacked her full in the face as soon as she stepped inside, and she sighed with warming pleasure. Loosening her fuzzy hood and tugging at her thick, hand-knit alpaca mittens, she made a beeline for the back of the store, where the rest of her Wednesday-night knitting group would be waiting.
Because the Yarn Barn hosted a number of craft groups and craft-related classes throughout the week, a large meeting nook had been set up in the rear. Several mismatched chairs were arranged around a low coffee table, and there was a refreshment area off to the side, complete with snacks and both hot and cold beverages.
At the moment, there was nothing Charlotte wanted more than a steaming cup of cocoa clutched between her ice-cold hands, but she would settle for the familiar comfort of her size-eight needles and the warm caress of the alpaca-fiber yarn she was using to knit a long, variegated cardigan as it ran through and around her fingers with every stitch.
Already, she could hear the staccato clack of needles clicking together beneath the voices of the women who were already gathered and busily working on their respective knitting projects. A sweater here, a scarf there, and several pairs of slipper socks to keep toes toasty over the long, cold winter or be stuffed into stockings for Christmas.
"Aunt Charlotte!" Jenna cried, catching sight of her over the top of one of the backward-facing chairs.
Sitting in that chair was the strikingly beautiful Grace Fisher, who turned along with everyone else to watch Charlotte's approach. "I swear, Charlotte, you look more like a troll doll every time I see you," she quipped.
Charlotte chuckled with amusement. Some people might have taken Grace's remark as an insult, but Charlotte was delighted with the description. From the moment Grace had first tossed out the comparison and then gifted Charlotte with one of the little plastic figurines to show her what she was talking about, Charlotte had been hooked.
That doll had been the first of what was turning out to be quite the Troll collection. She had one with yellow hair on her mantel, one with blue hair on the dresser in her bedroom, one with green hair on the back of the toilet in her bathroom, and the one with flame-orange hair that Grace had originally given her hung from the rearview mirror of her station wagon, where she could admire it on a regular basis.
She just loved the little buggers. Like Cabbage Patch dolls, they were so ugly, they were cute, and she'd made it one of her goals in life to get her own bright orange, beehived hair to stand as tall as theirs. She was close, too; only a few inches to go.
"We were beginning to wonder when you'd show up," her niece said as Charlotte struggled out of her oversized coat and let it drop to the floor beside an empty chair. Patting the well-shellacked dome of her hair to make sure the hood hadn't done irreparable damage, she took a seat and pulled her craft tote onto her lap.
"Sorry. I got busy with my babies and lost track of the time," Charlotte told them, referring to her beloved pack of alpacas.
That wasn't entirely true, of course. She'd finished feeding and bedding down everyone in plenty of time, but when she'd returned to the house to collect her things before leaving for the weekly knitting meeting, she realized she didn't have the skein of pink yarn she'd made for Grace.
Very special yarn.
A year ago — give or take a few excitement-filled months — Charlotte had almost by accident stumbled across a delightful secret. The solid oak spinning wheel that had been handed down through the women in her family for generations was magic. Not run-of-the-mill magic, either, but the very best kind — the kind that brought true love.
Charlotte had grown up with her mother and grandmother telling her stories about the enchanted, true-love spinning wheel, but she'd thought they were just that — stories. It wasn't until recently that she'd remembered the old wheel, hidden and collecting dust in a corner of her attic. She'd dragged it downstairs (no easy feat for a woman of her somewhat advanced age and limited height), cleaned it up, and used dyed fiber from her own alpacas to spin a skein of soft black yarn that she'd then given to Ronnie, one of the young women in her knitting group.
At the time, Ronnie had been head over heels in hate with a man who wrote for a competing local newspaper, and Charlotte thought they would make the perfect guinea pigs for her enchanted-spinning-wheel test run.
When that had turned out better than great — Ronnie and her beau were now living together, and Charlotte expected a wedding announcement any day — she'd used the wheel to spin another skein of enchanted yarn.
Fluffy and purple this time, for her own dear niece, Jenna, who had been divorced and miserable. Charlotte hadn't actually expected Jenna to reconcile with her ex-husband; she'd thought the yarn would bring some other young man into her niece's life instead. But since the two now seemed deliriously happy together, and were planning to tie the knot a second time just before Christmas, she certainly wasn't going to complain. As far as she was concerned, that simply proved that the spinning wheel did bring true love to those who used the yarn it created.
Now there was one more person in need of the wheel's very special powers.
Poor Grace. Another of Charlotte's favorite knitting group members, she was such a lovely, vibrant woman. And she'd been even more lovely and vibrant in her happiness over being engaged to Zackary "Hot Legs" Hoolihan, the star goalie for the Cleveland Rockets and one of the city's homegrown heroes.
Happy, that was, until she'd walked into Zack's hotel room one day last summer while he was on the road with the team and found another woman in his bed.
Though Charlotte had been out of town at the time, she'd heard the whole sordid story when she got home. Zack denied any wrongdoing, but Grace was adamant that she wasn't blind and knew what she'd walked in on.
According to Jenna and Ronnie, Grace had gone a bit crazy after discovering her fiancé's infidelity. Charlotte had seen her mini-meltdown firsthand when Grace went on the air of her self-titled local cable television show, Amazing Grace, and spent the entire half hour ranting and raving about the perfidy of men in general and Zack in particular. But apparently she had also taken a baseball bat to Zack's cherry-red Hummer, and gleefully tossed his clothes and assorted other belongings out his sixth-story window.
Although Charlotte couldn't blame Grace for being upset, she thought such blatant destruction of property was a little over the top. Especially since Zack just as publicly and vehemently proclaimed his innocence.
Though she tended to side with Grace on the matter — after all, they were both women who knit, and yarn sistahs needed to stick together — Charlotte wasn't sure exactly what to believe. As with most disagreements, she suspected the truth lay somewhere in the middle.
What was clear, however, was that Grace's life was in desperate need of some divine intervention. A little sprinkle of fairy dust to help her get over the pain of her dis-engagement ... and hopefully find love again.
That's where Charlotte came in.
Just call her "Matchmakin' Mama," she thought with a private giggle.
She'd dyed more of her babies' soft, beautiful fiber a bright, bold pink, and then used her family's secret enchanted spinning wheel to weave a wonderful skein of yarn just for Grace.
Which was why she couldn't possibly have left the house this evening without it.
But she'd found it, thank goodness. Right where she'd left it, too — in a wicker basket beside the sofa in her living room, along with several other homemade balls of yarn.
Now she simply had to find a way to slip it to Grace sometime during their Knit Wits meeting and ensure that she put it to good use. Otherwise, the magic that the spinning wheel infused into the yarn would never get a chance to create a true love match.
And it would work. Of that, Charlotte had no doubt. The wheel's yarn had worked twice before, and she was certain it would work again for Grace. After all, the third time was, as they said, the charm.
Around her, the gals chitted and chatted, discussing their weeks and their latest knitting projects, and men. Men always seemed to be a popular topic of conversation, whether the group was admiring a specific physique or bemoaning their fickle, infuriating hides.
Being the eldest member of the group — and, sadly, the one most removed from a romantic relationship of any kind, unless she counted her enormous love for her alpaca babies and barn cats — Charlotte tended to sit back and enjoy the animated conversations rather than offer her own opinions about the opposite sex.
Girls these days ... Charlotte was far from being a prude, but some of the stories her knitting buddies told could strip the Garnier Summer Wildfire #968 right off her hair and send it blooming in her cheeks. Not that she would ever let them know their banter teetered on the far side of her moral alphabet. (As in Triple X-Y-Z.)
In her day, young women didn't make time with as many young men as they apparently did today. They also didn't share the intimate details of their relationships with anyone who would listen.
But Charlotte considered herself a modern, sophisticated woman, so she took it all in, and even made a few mental notes for herself. Not many — she was too afraid her eyes would go blind and her fingers would burn down to the bone if she tried to write them out. And granted, she hadn't had the opportunity to put her womanly wiles to the test in quite a long time, but one never knew when Prince Charming might come galloping — or in her case, shuffling — into one's life.
Luckily, not everybody was as miserable in her love life as Grace and Charlotte.
A few were married and raising families, including Melanie, who tried her best to get away from her two small children long enough to attend the weekly knitting meetings.
A few were college-age girls who were enjoying their youth too much to tie themselves to any one boy yet.
Then there was Jenna, who was jump-out-of-her-skin, the-hills-are-alive-with-the-sound-of-music in love with her ex- and soon to be re-husband, Gage. Always had been, and the whole world knew it. It had just taken a few years of misery, a premature divorce decree, a couple pints of tequila, and some magic yarn to get them both back on the same page.
And Ronnie was right there twirling around on the hillside with Jenna, glowing so brightly over her happiness with Dylan Stone that she practically burst into flames every time someone mentioned his name.
Charlotte's gaze slid to Grace. Ronnie was telling them about the past weekend, when she'd gone away with Dylan to a remote mountain cabin. Apparently the temperature had been too low and there had been too much snow on the ground to do much more than stay inside in front of a blazing fire. Charlotte rather suspected that had been the point to begin with. Why else would anyone leave the frosty temperatures of Cleveland in the middle of winter to vacation in an even more glacial location?
Charlotte also suspected she was the only one who noticed how uncomfortable Ronnie's story was making Grace. Though a smile was firmly painted on her lips, it was strained and the attempt at outward amusement didn't reach her eyes.
If Ronnie had known that her animated account was causing her friend even a modicum of discomfort, she would have clammed up in a nanosecond, but Grace was so good at hiding her emotions and playing the part of a perfectly coiffed, perfectly content public figure that she had everyone around her fooled. Even her best friends.
They didn't call her "Amazing Grace" for nothing, after all.
But Charlotte saw. And she knew that no matter how hard Grace pretended to be over the devastation of her broken engagement, in reality it was still tearing her up inside.
Not for long, though. God and true-love magic willing, Grace's shattered heart would soon be mended.
Almost before she knew it, the hour drew to a close, and everyone started tightening stitches and rolling up loose yarn, putting away their works in progress. Butterflies fluttered in Charlotte's stomach as she saw her opportunity.
Jumping to her feet, she hurried to shrug into her coat and sidle up to Grace before anyone else could join them.
"I have a surprise for you, dear," she said quietly, reaching into her bag for the carefully woven skein of silky-soft pink yarn.
Grace's gaze lowered as she reached to accept Charlotte's gift, and Charlotte noticed that the polish on Grace's perfectly manicured nails matched the tint of the yarn.
Oooh, this was wonderful! She'd known pink was one of the young woman's favorite colors, but having it match her nails had to be a sign. A sign that this particular skein of magic yarn was, indeed, meant for Grace.
"That's so sweet. Thank you, Charlotte."
The words were sincere enough, but they didn't carry Grace's usual flare of enthusiasm. Everything about her these days was muted, as though a bubble of unhappiness surrounded her.
"Make yourself something special with it," Charlotte suggested, wanting to press and make sure Grace started using the yarn as soon as possible. "Maybe after you finish that pretty sweater you're working on now." Which only had one more sleeve and some trim work to go.
Lips curving in a halfhearted smile, Grace leaned down to buss Charlotte's cheek. "I will. Thank you again."
Well, it wasn't exactly a blood oath to begin knitting with the new yarn before the clock struck midnight, Charlotte thought with a mental sigh, but it would have to do. Now all she could do was cross her fingers and her toes and hope to heaven the enchantment of the ancient spinning wheel held true and worked its wonderful magic once again. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Knock Me for a Loop by Heidi Betts. Copyright © 2010 Heidi Betts. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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